Making Things Better by Anita Brookner

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Making Things Better Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Making Things Better opens with Julius Herz, age seventy-three, dreaming of his narcissistic cousin Fanny Bauer, whom he has romantically desired but been denied since childhood. Much of this narrative peers inside Julius’s thoughts, revealing his backstory while chronicling his present. A German exile, a frequent figure in Brookner’s fiction, Julius has lived in London since his Jewish family departed Berlin when he was fourteen during the 1930’s. A benefactor, Mr. Ostrovski, provided Julius’s parents, Willy and Trude Herz, a flat and income from his music store.

This novel’s American title is embedded in the text as Julius attempts to makes conditions tolerable by dutifully serving his controlling parents and maintaining contact with his older brother, Freddy, a gifted violinist who resides in a hospice after a mental breakdown. That exile enabled Freddy to escape his parents’ expectations. Trapped in a dreamlike existence, Julius neglects his desires, including his wife, Josie, who divorces him. Instead of seeking autonomous employment, Julius works in the music store with his father, settling into a tranquilizing routine that helps him grieve as the sole survivor after his parents’ and brother’s deaths.

Ostrovski sells the property where Julius works and lives, forcing Julius to make decisions. Julius adjusts to newfound idleness by leasing a flat and strolling to shops, galleries, and parks. As times passes, aging Julius measures life in the terms of his lease commitment, assuming he might die before renewing it. The text repeats this novel’s British title, referring to dying being the next significant event for older people.

Brookner’s choice of Julius’s German surname, Herz, meaning heart, symbolizes his geriatric concerns, both emotional and physical. He meets Josie for lunches but values her friendship rather than attempting to reconnect romantically with her. Julius is aroused by his unattainable new neighbor, Sophie Clay, a young career woman. He longs for love, particularly with Fanny. When he experiences alarming heart flutters, Julius seeks help from an aloof physician who prescribes medication and ignores Julius’s comments about Sigmund Freud. Ted Bishop, Julius’s housecleaner, shares a cautionary tale in which an elderly airline passenger experiences a dire medical situation, foreshadowing Julius’s future.

Julius goes to Paris, desiring to see a Eugène Delacroix painting that had impressed him as a young man. His memories offer revelations of freedoms he had briefly savored there in the past. At home, he gets rid of heirlooms, particularly family photographs. After not communicating with him for years, Fanny sends...

(The entire section is 599 words.)